Report: Secret Justice program spied on cellphones

The Justice Department is using fake cellphone towers on airplanes to gather data about thousands of Americans’ location and identifying information, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper, citing unnamed people familiar with the operations, reported Thursday that the program is operated by the U.S. Marshals Service and has been fully functional since around 2007. 

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Under the program, airplanes with “dirtbox” tracking devices operate from at least five major airports and fly out in patterns covering most of the U.S. population, the Journal reported.

While the program is aimed at locating suspects under investigation of the government, information about tens of thousands of people in the U.S. is reportedly caught up during each of the flights. The device “lets go” of phones that are not considered to be suspects, people speaking to the Journal said.

An official with the department declined to comment on the details of the report or confirm or deny that it was accurate.

"Discussion of sensitive law enforcement equipment and techniques would allow criminal defendants, criminal enterprises, or foreign powers, to determine our capabilities and limitations in this area,” the official said. “In deploying any such equipment or tactics our federal law enforcement agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval."

The new program is sure to stir outrage among privacy and civil liberties advocates, who have long accused the government of going to questionable lengths in order to track down suspects.

The use of StingRay devices, for instance, which also mimic cellphone towers to trick phones into sending information about their location, has come under fire from critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

The U.S. Marshals program reported by the Journal seems to be a much more expansive use of the technology. 

— This story was updated at 7 p.m.